THERE IS SOMETHING curious about a small building on Kensington Park Road (near to London’s Portobello Road). Above its centrally located, west-facing front door, there are three tall windows topped with semi-circular arches. In each of these windows, there is a circular pane of glass painted white.
If you look at the circular panes carefully, you will notice that, almost obscured by the paint, there is a six-pointed star, the Jewish Magen David. Inside the building, there is a large hall flanked by galleries at the first-floor level. The galleries are supported by metal columns topped with decorative capitals. High up on the east wall of the building, there is a circular stained-glass window. The glass depicts a Magen David: it has not been concealed by paint.
Did you know that this building, now much modified, was one of two synagogues in the Bayswater/Notting Hill area of west London? The other, still functioning, is on St Petersburgh Place near Bayswater Road.
I will not tell you any more about these two synagogues, one defunct and the other working, and west London Jewish communities, because you can read about them ( and much more) in my book “Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London”. You can buy the book from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/BEYOND-MARYLEBONE-MAYFAIR-EXPLORING-LONDON/dp/B0B7CR679W/), or if you prefer to support independent bookshops, you can order a copy from a lovely bookshop near the former synagogue on Kensington Park Road: Lutyens & Rubinstein (21 Kensington Park Rd, London W11 2EU).
THE SYNAGOGUE IN Bayswater’s St Petersburg Place, a gothic revival edifice, looks no more exotic or out of place than the Victorian gothic Church of St Matthew built 1881-82 on the same street. In fact, it is another building to the north of these two that is unashamedly exotic in appearance: Aghia Sofia (Saint Sophia), the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Moscow Road. This domed building constructed for a community of prosperous Greek merchants was designed by John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913 and completed in 1877.
The first Greeks began arriving in London at the end of the 17th century. By the late 19th century (according to the website http://www.stsophia.org.uk), members of the Greek community in London:
“… were distinguished for their industry and their business acumen, and … soon became for the most part financially independent. They now wished to enjoy a more comfortable life, both for themselves and their families. They kept their offices in the City, but took up their private residences in other parts of London. The favourite districts were Lancaster Gate and Bayswater. These districts, which today are almost in the centre of the unending metropolis, were then only on its fringe, and to go from the City to Hyde Park, for instance, was considered a long excursion, which was undertaken, normally, only on holidays, as a relaxation and in order to enjoy the fresh country air.
After three decades had passed from the founding of the Church of Our Saviour [in the City near London Wall], no one any longer had his private residence in the City; and whereas previously all had lived within a very short distance of the Church, now five whole miles divided the Church from the residential district of the faithful.
For the men, in particular, who had every day to make the journey to the City, a tiring one with the means of transport then available, it was hard to undergo the same fatigue on Sundays also, when they were supposed not only to perform their religious duties, but also to rest from the labours of the week. Moreover, the number of the Greeks had greatly increased, and there was scarcely room for them all in the Church then existing. These various difficulties made it imperatively necessary to build a new larger Church, situated closer to the residences of the Brothers.”
Just as the Jewish people, who had also settled in Bayswater, far from the older synagogues in the City and established a new one near their new homes, the Greeks did the same. Moscow Road’s St Sophia’s church interior is filled with icons and other religious paintings is colourful and attractive. Instead of frescos on the walls, which were believed to be at risk of damage from London’s damp climate, the church’s interior is lined with mosaics. Some of the earliest of these were designed by Arthur George Walker (1861-1939). In 1926, the Russian born mosaic artist Boris Vasilyevich Anrep (1883-1969) created some more mosaics for the cathedral. The marble floor of the edifice is also attractive.
SOME ‘POSHER’ JEWISH people in west London tended to live around Bayswater. These prosperous members of the Jewish community arrived in Bayswater in the 19th century as the district began to be urbanised. Many of them had drifted westwards from Bloomsbury and the City (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp264-265). This migration placed them at an inconvenient distance from the synagogues they had been used to attending. So, in 1863, Bayswater Synagogue (at corner of Chichester Place and Harrow Road) was consecrated. This new place of worship was a branch of both the of the Great Synagogue (in the City north of Aldgate) and the New Synagogue (originally near Leadenhall Street, and then later in Great St Helens Street). Like so many Jewish buildings in mainland Europe, this synagogue was destroyed by the forces of Nazi Germany, during WW2.
In 1879, an offshoot of the now demolished Bayswater Synagogue was consecrated in St Petersburg Place, a short distance from the main road known as Bayswater. This, The New West End Synagogue, is now one of the oldest surviving functioning synagogues in Great Britain. At first sight, you might easily be mistaken for thinking that the huge red brick building with Victorian gothic architectural features, a rose window, and twin bell towers, is a church. And maybe that was the intention of the community that commissioned the building. Upwardly mobile Jewish people in Victorian England might well have preferred not to advertise their religious beliefs too much in a society that then had many prejudices against Judaism and other non-Christian religions. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place looks no more exotic or out of place than the Church of St Matthew a few yards north on the same street. In fact, it is another building to the north of these two and within sight of them that is unashamedly exotic in appearance, Aghia Sofia, the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Moscow Road, which was consecrated only three years after the synagogue.
The desire of some Jewish people to ‘meld’ seamlessly with British ‘high society’ was not confined to England. Amos Elon writes about this in his inciteful book about the ‘emancipation’ of Jews in Germany, “The Pity of it All”, and what a dreadful fate it led to. It is my impression that amongst the few Jewish people, mostly of British and German origin, living in Victorian South Africa, there was the belief that economic and social advancement was not hindered by being somewhat discreet about their religious beliefs. This changed during the final few decades of the 19th century when many Jewish people began arriving from parts of the former Russian Empire, many from what is now Lithuania. Often much poorer than their co-religionists, who were already well-established in South Africa, they were far less reticent about expressing their religious beliefs and critical of the ‘established’ Anglo-German Jewish community, who had, in their eyes, become rather too lax about Jewish religious observance.
Returning to Bayswater and its mainly prosperous Jewish families, we can now travel less than a mile northwest to reach the northern end of Kensington Park Road, close to Portobello Road, in nearby Notting Hill, to reach the site of another, now disused, synagogue. This building, still standing but now repurposed, was not designed to mislead the onlooker into believing it was a church. As was the case in South Africa during the last few decades of the Victorian era, large numbers of Jewish people began arriving in London from Eastern Europe, and many of them settled in the crowded East End. In 1902, A Jewish Dispersion Committee, set up by the (Jewish) banker and philanthropist Sir Samuel Montagu (1832-1911), tried to attract some of these new arrivals to settle in areas away from the East End, like Notting Hill (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol1/pp149-151).
The former Notting Hill Synagogue at numbers 206/208 Kensington Park Road was opened in 1900 (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Index.htm), a little ahead of the formation of the above-mentioned committee. Presumably, it was worth opening because there must have been sufficient Jewish presence in the neighbourhood. By 1905, it had 281 members and ten years later, there were 250. Its ritual was Ashkenazi Orthodox, the same as that at the New West End Synagogue, but the congregants were less wealthy than those who attended the latter. Many of them were market stallholders or artisans, such as tailors and shoemakers (http://www.ladbrokeassociation.info/Churchesandotherreligiousbuildings.htm#Synagogue). They lived in what were at the beginning of the 20th century far less salubrious dwellings than many of those, who worshipped in St Peterburg Place. Although I do not know for certain, I doubt there was much socialising between the Jewish communities of Bayswater and Notting Hill.
The Notting Hill Synagogue was housed in a former church hall. Its memorial stone dated the 27th of January 1900 was laid by Sir Samuel Montagu. Although it was a discreet building externally, its interior with galleries for the women and girls was elaborate and attractive as can be seen in old photographs (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Photographs.htm). We have walked past it many times without realising it was once a place of worship until a friend told us recently about its former incarnation.
During WW2, the synagogue was severely damaged by a German bomb. It was restored and reconstructed. During the Notting Hill race riots in the late 1950’s, during the time that the fascist Oswald Mosely (1896-1980) was campaigning as a candidate in the election for the parliamentary seat of the local constituency, Kensington North, he set up his office close to the synagogue. On the 31st of January 1959, one of his supporters daubed the synagogue with the words used by the Nazis: “Juden raus”. Despite these traumatic events, the synagogue continued to thrive until the 1990s, when the size of the local Jewish population had declined. Rabbi Pini Dunner (born 1970), who had been invited to help in performing the ritual in 1992, when the synagogue, under the leadership of its charismatic Stuart Schama, was falling into decline, wrote:
“Notting Hill Synagogue was nothing like any shul I had ever seen. The congregants consisted of a motley group of mainly octogenarian men, characters out of some East End Jewish sit-com, each with his own catchphrase, many of them not quite sure why they were there week after week.”
The synagogue then closed, and amalgamated with the Shepherd’s Bush, Fulham & District Synagogue. Since its closure, the synagogue has been used as a ‘health club’. Currently (March 2021), the building bears the name ‘Teresa Tarmey’, a company that supplies various treatments (www.teresatarmey.com/).
The transformation of the former synagogue into a trendy beauty salon reflects that of Notting Hill from a relatively impoverished area into a prosperous area with high property prices, which is beginning to make Bayswater seem less attractive in comparison. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place continues to thrive. One of my cousins, who lives many miles from it, told me that it was well worth travelling to because its congregation is vibrant and life-enhancing, which is good to know because the mainly residential area surrounding the synagogue is usually rather sleepy.